heed the call of the peacock!


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A FEW WEEKS ago as I arrived at the Pearl of Africa Hotel for the launch of ‘The Call Of The Peacock‘, I noted how gentle and professional the Special Forces Command officials were as they guided us into the celebration room.

They were markedly different from the soldiers I grew up dodging, and from the parking lot to the very entrance to the ballroom I kept thinking of the term ‘Customer Care’ and musing at how it could now be used in reference to some of the toughest soldiers on the Continent.

At the entrance, I burst into a laugh when a plainclothes officer politely asked, “Is Madame not coming?” as he inspected my card.

He knew neither “Madame” nor myself, since the card didn’t bear our actual names. But he was quite polite.

These were small signs of how things have changed in Uganda since the days in which Mahendra Mehta was born, or when his father first came to East Africa.

The bigger sign was the book launch itself. The car I drove into the hotel had five books in it – Trevor Noah’s ‘Born A Crime‘, Karen Bugingo’s ‘My Name Is Life‘, Rakesh Wahi’s ‘Be A Lion‘, Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi’s ‘Kintu‘ and Rita Kenkwanzi’s ‘Kamwe, Kamwe, Nigwo Muganda…and other lessons from my father‘.

Three of those five books were Ugandan (I have claimed Karen because Rwanda and Uganda blah blah blah) so three out of five books were from home. Plus, it feels to me at if every week we attend or read or tweet about a book launch by a Ugandan.

That feeling makes me happy but is also unsettling a small personal challenge I created last year. See, on doing up my small home office or study space, I had a nice, solid bookshelf installed on the wall at a height designed to inspire me to fill it without braining myself often in excitement at any piece of literature.

One section of the bookshelf has been reserved for population with only books written by Ugandans or, I later decided, about Uganda.

I knew that wouldn’t be easy but I’ve been encouraging all the remarkable people I meet regardless of their vastness of age and breadth of experience to write books – swiftly brushing away any counter suggestions that I go first.

Waiting for the President to arrive and officiate at the launch, we got the opportunity to buy up our own copies and pester Mahendra Mehta to autograph them – which he graciously did.

Two gentlemen at my table told us that Mehta’s father, Nanji Kalidas Mehta, had written a book of his own about his life in Africa and India – ‘Dream Half Expressed: An Autobiography‘ – that inspired many to venture out and chase their dreams. The fellow enthusing about it said how the older Mehta fell in love with that Lugazi hill on his travels when he first saw it and swore he would one day buy it up and build a house there.

Mahendra’s book, as I read it right there in the ballroom, started for me at that very spot – the hill, the house, and the orderliness and beauty of the peacocks he brought there from Nairobi.

It is difficult to put ‘The Call Of The Peacock’ down if you are sensible. I only did so that night to walk round a little bit and was pleased to find, at the table next to Mahendra, Manu Chandaria – founder of Kenya-based Chandaria Industries.

We met in March this year when he graced the East African Business Council Anniversary ceremonies and spent the day with us at higher energy levels than most even though he was ill. He had just turned 89 and chided the rest of us for being so sedentary compared to him – which he called “the problem in East Africa”.

Age formed a large part of our discussion at the table after I read the part in the book where old man Mehta left India at age thirteen (13) and set sail for Africa, leaving behind a young wife.

The fact that a 13-year old could board a ship for another continent entirely, leave alone the idea that he had already started a family, made me resolve to buy each of my children a personal copy of this book so it would be easier for them to Uber across this city. When I told the family that my sixteen-year old was taking a job serving at a Cafe I met with protests.

Worse, I even have peers who can’t get onto a boda-boda round Kampala, they are so damn spoilt and lazy and complacent.

Mehta, however, made it across the ocean in a simple dhow and hopped from country to country till he got to Lugazi. Reading about his progress and hard work translates into the hard evidence we see in his sugar factory and other investments.

It makes sense because genuine, long-lasting wealth and success simply don’t happen overnight – and that’s another reason my children are each getting a copy of this book.

Our EmCee of the night, Patrick Zikusooka, was Senior General Manager with the Mehta Group where he has worked for 44 years – as long as I have been alive, and yet still serving steadfast in a manner many of our youth cannot possibly contemplate!

The celebrated publisher Ashok Chopra, at the event, described the book well as “immensely educative, informative and entertaining.”

Those three ingredients created an emotional recipe to pass on to generations to come regardless of race and origin. By Page 33, read that evening at the launch event itself, I was planning to bequeath copies to my as-yet-unborn grandchildren.

Apparently Mehta refused editorial guidance and structure because he insisted that this was HIS story and detailed HIS memoirs! Mind you, the book design and binding told its own story!

His son, when he took to the podium and reflected a young yet strikingly similar elderly figure of his father’s, wondered if the tradition of story telling his grandfather and father before him would continue in this age of television, internet and social media.

The books of the old men, he said, laid down the value foundations of their family – and that challenge faced him but, more importantly, face all of us in Uganda!

Reading this book reminded me why I like the culture of the Indians so much.

Jay, as he spoke, proved that even he had a book within him ready to be written, and brought to life at an hour respectfully removed from that of his father’s. He might not have known it, that night, but it was there in his speech just as it was suggested in the words of his grandfather and his father before him.

He expressed the same doubts about his fathers love for him that his own father wrote about HIS father before him, and made those of us who had arrived at that page in the book shake our heads.

President Museveni, when Jay recited excerpts from the book from memories of the 1980s, smiled widely and nodded his head as he recalled the very same events – and later in his speech re-affirmed them even though he hadn’t yet read the book.

The Call of the Peacock‘ is written evidence that Mahendra Mehta made a personal pledge to Uganda because of the kindness and trust of Ugandans – represented by the people selling vegetables by the roadside along Jinja Road who refused to take his money in spite of their destitution and misery, understanding that return of the Mehta’s would rebuild the economy.

THAT is the spirit of UGANDA! In a live sense from his actions and writings, WE are the Peacocks he speaks of, and we should be as proud of ourselves as Peacocks are of their feathers!

Nanjibhai Kalidas Mehta first came to Uganda in 1904 – earlier than some of our own grandfathers – and Mahendra Mehta has lived here 65 years. When Mahendra told the story of how he first met the Museveni’s at Nairobi airport by pestering them, the President and First Lady laughed at the memory.

From his story that night it was obvious that this old man had been keenly paying attention to politics and governance in Uganda and following closely everything that was being said by serious political leadership. He is one of those who uses political declarations to make wise business decisions – which is different from basing business on politics.

He only rejuvenated the Mehta Sugar Factory on January 25, 1988 after the government – particularly President Museveni himself as the supremo at the time – had promised there would be no bureaucratic delays.

Going back to age, Mahendra Mehta was barely in his twenties when he began to operate as a successful businessman – which should make us all think twice before we type out our next WhatsApp message, Facebook post or Tweet.

Read his book, everyone and think again about what YOU are doing about your life TODAY in relative peace, freedom and comfort.

That night, when the old man launched the US$1million Mehta Foundation focussing on disabilities and children’s health, we applauded with respect. Haters can talk, but the stories in the book and the actions of his father followed a logical flow to build up to this.

President Museveni launched the book with his usual conviviality tempered with Pan-African ideology and emphasizing the respect that many lack when they approach Indo-African relations.

“I found Indians at a Temple in London mourning about Amin kicking them out of Uganda and I told them to stop mourning because Amin only killed three (3) Asians and about 500,000 Ugandans!” he said.

“I also joked with them that the NRA/M went to the bush to fight but the only bush the Indians knew was Shepherd’s Bush!” he quipped, sending the room into the disarray we needed to get out of the deeply emotional state that Mahendra Mehta’s family story had evoked in all our minds.

The link between the Mehta’s and Uganda’s revolution is as clear in this book as it was in Museveni’s speech the night of its launch, as he recounted personal stories and confessed his appreciation of Mrs. Mehta’s bagiya.

At our table we laughed when one of us bumped into Henry Okello Oryem, Minister and Member of Parliament, who had found mention of his father in the book side-splitting. One time, when Mahendra had left the country for India during the unstable days of the 1980s, he sent his wife back home to look after things here. The day after she arrived a Colonel arrived with a note requesting her presence before General Tito Lutwa Okello himself.

She was suitably alarmed and fled the country then called her husband to complain about sending her into the lion’s den. He laughed. The General, he explained, was his friend and only seeking to make her comfortable at his behest.

The now-departed General’s son found this mirthful as his memories of his father were of the same kindly nature rather than the fearful reputation that caused Mrs. Mehta to flee in such fear.

This book TELLS one, REMINDS one, and TEACHES of A LOT!

Read it.

For Uganda.

It is ‘The Call Of The Peacock‘.

here are some of the opportunities that were in this year’s State of the Nation address #EconomicsUG


Museveni State of the Nation from www.dispatch.ug.jpg
Photo from http://www.dispatch.ug

OVER the years, I’ve picked up this highly useful fact from various successful Asian and Asian-Ugandan businessmen operating happily in Uganda: EVERY time there is a political or national event, they pay close attention to what the speech-makers are saying.

When it’s the President, they pay extra-special heed to the details of what he says and they thereafter follow up by making additional inquiries and investigations with the relevant offices.

One of them told me this as he was explaining why his father had invested in the first level of successful industry back in 1988, after two years of closely following this new NRM/A government all the way from London, in the United Kingdom. The young man himself was showing me round an investment project of his own that had built on his father’s success but fed off the plans the government kept announcing and dropping hints at.

That’s why, after last year’s End of Year address by the President to the Republic of Uganda, I wrote this – https://skaheru.com/2018/01/06/aligning-our-personal-objectives-with-our-national-ones/.

This week we listened to President Yoweri Kaguta Museveni delivering another State of the Nation address – Uganda’s Chief Executive Officer’s report to the Annual General Meeting of shareholders.

I listened carefully to the event, paying attention to possible opportunities that even the smallest-scale businessman, entrepreneur or speculator could take advantage of and plan for.

They stand out quite well – paragraph by paragraph – #OpportunityUG – and just in case you haven’t read it or seen them, here are the ones I suspect might be useful:

“…we now have tarmac roads to almost all the corners of Uganda: Nimule; Oraba; Musingo; Vurra; Lwakhakha soon; Malaba; Busia; Busuunga, beyond Bundibugyo; Mpondwe; Mutukula; Muroongo on the Kagyera river; Mirama hill; Katuna; Cyanika and Bunagana.  Radiating from Kampala, tarmac roads are now connecting all those points. The distance between Cyanika and Oraba is 1,048Kms (655miles), all of it connected by a tarmac road, from Kisoro district to Koboko…”

When a road is built with tarmac, the value of the land adjacent and in the towns that it connects tends to rise. If you check for the most recently built road you might find some land available either for sale or lease and snatch it up before its value rises.

Besides that, there are additional opportunities along such roads – such as establishing rest-stops, motels, shopping centres, fuel stations, and other enterprises that will take advantage of the increased traffic.

“farmers will use more irrigation. In the coming financial year, the Government will work on the following irrigation schemes using the government budget:

  • Doho phase II in Butalejja district;
  • Mubuku phase II in Kasese district;
  • Wadelai in Nebbi district;
  • Tochi in Oyam district;
  • Ngenge in Oyam district;
  • Atari (Bulambuli and Kween);
  • Katete in Kanungu district;
  • Kawumu in Luwero district;
  • Amagoro (Tororo district);
  • Nabigaga (Kamuli district);
  • Rwimi (Kasese and Kabarole district);
  • Nyimur (Lamwo);
  • Musamya (Kayunga);
  • Kibimba (Gomba);
  • Kabuyanda (Isingiro);
  • Matanda (Isingiro); and
  • Igogero-Naigombwa (Iganga and Bugiri).

In order to roll-out a global irrigation system for the whole country, we are encouraging industrialists to set up assembly or manufacturing plants for solar-powered water pumps. Some of these pumps and water conveyance systems, will be used in government funded irrigation schemes. Others, however, will be used by the farmers at their own cost. I encourage all the capable farmers to, at their own cost, go  into irrigation.

We shouldn’t need the President himself to “encourage capable farmers” to go into irrigation. If you were planning to go into farming or agriculture, go and check where these irrigation projects are and set up your own project right there. Check what the application processes are and go for those!

But besides the irrigation project itself, check what elements go into the irrigation and solar-powered water pump manufacturing and see if you can supply or manufacture one of those components.

At the very least, if you don’t plan to invest, go and find a quick course to do in irrigation and solar-powered systems so that when these factories set up here you are marginally more marketable than the person next to you.

“With the building of our phosphate fertilizer plant in Tororo, Uganda, which at 2.5kgs per hectare has one of the lowest rates of fertilizer use, will now stir itself up to use more fertilizers. We are looking for an additional investor to blend the phosphates with nitrogen and potassium in order to formulate NPK (Nitrogen, phosphates and potassium). With the use of NPK, production will go up by 30%.  With higher rates of agricultural growth, the overall rate of growth will go up.”

Fertilisers are going to be taken seriously next year? First of all, the factory in question is in Tororo – what will the logistics be like? Normally transport goes from Tororo to Kampala and then from there to the rest of the country – so how about investing in a route that goes from Tororo direct to Gulu via Lira and capturing all the farmers that side?

Also, there must be an opportunity in this fertiliser trade that you can explore by even studying mixes and becoming an expert or consultant in its application and use – therefore turning all the farmers seeking fertilisers into your direct clients while also taking on the Fertiliser Plant itself.

I would like to single-out the sector of construction.  This grew by 12.5% annually. This is not surprising given the respective efforts of the government and the private sector in the areas of road and houses construction.”

The construction sector is growing by 12.5% annually? What will happen this coming year? Can we go for something there as well? Even if it’s not investing in hardware, is there a component that we can replace with something cheaper and yet equally efficient? What about the real estate brokers dealing in this growing sector – can we find better methods and corner the market?

The opportunities in construction are myriad, as it were, mushrooming each day the way apartment blocks do. Think of gardening and landscaping, and interior decoration, and auxiliary products and services.

If you have no investment capital to set up something big, how about teaming up with some pals and forming a cleaning service targeting just one set of these apartment blocks that keep cropping up…? That list goes on and on and on.

“I told you how rich Ugandans and other Africans are, already. In the case of Uganda, we spend about US dollars 7 billion a year in terms of imports. Importing what? Importing the shoes, clothes, carpets, textiles, furniture units, pharmaceuticals, electronic equipments, perfumes, soaps, wines, cars, pikipikis (motorcycles), etc etc…

We import so much? How about finding some of these items and their value, then picking up local ones and improving their quality even post-manufacture and then doing some import replacement?

That might now work for the perfumes, but even nonsense like second-hand clothing could provide an opportunity. A t-shirt with the Macdonalds logo on it could be spruced up with some kitenge bits to replace Maconalds and go for a neat margin well over and above the opened-bale price.

4,525 girls have already been assisted to engage in: knitting, shoe-making, weaving, tailoring, bakery and embroidery, while 6 groups have been assisted in furniture-making and 10 in welding.

Great opportunity there! Where are all these girls? Are they employed somewhere and each running their own business? If not, how about getting the list of the very best of them and investing in an outfit that will employ their services, skills and talents?

A handful of these girls could actually implement that little idea above of getting second-hand t-shirts and refitting them so they are fresh, Ugandan designs.

They even studied baking? If you take the marketing component and find a friend to handle packaging, you can be rolling in sweet money within a very short time of embarking on a project with these girls!

In the coming days, the Minister of Finance will announce the financial support we intend to give to the groups that wish to join the manufacturing in the form of the enhanced micro-finance efforts and the Innovation in addition to the Women Fund, the Youth Fund and Operation Wealth Creation Fund.

The ‘coming days’ that H.E. the President was referring to is the June 14 Reading of the National Budget.

If you don’t pay attention as THAT is being presented, and only focus on political statements (by yourself as well as by the politicians) please don’t blame anyone for your despondency thereafter.

non-Ugandans are out here loving uganda more than YOU


A while back I spotted a little boy vending colourful cloth rucksacks and shoulder bags in the environs of Kkungu, in Kira District and I bought one up with glee. I used it so hard that it got stolen at the Village Mall in Bugolobi but not before I had spread the word about his grandmother Rose Nakitto, who makes the bags (she was on 0777 460 854).

In the same breath I mentioned another discovery – a little shop called Ricci Everyday operating out of Prunes Cafe on Wampewo Avenue.

Ricci Everyday sells the same type of Kitenge or ‘African cloth’ bags of varying styles and quality levels, at vastly different prices. Nakitto’s were going for about Ushs35,000 a bag while Ricci Everyday sold theirs ranging from Ushs200,000 to more than Ushs1million!

Two weeks ago I chanced upon an article online about Ricci Everyday in Japan, and my heart applauded them. This outfit had taken Uganda to the first world whole sale and was bringing money here to pay the people, presumably women, who do the actual work stitching the bags!

And they’ve been doing so for YEARS! In 2016 they exhibited these Ugandan-made bags at a premier fashion show in London and have done so consistently ever since.

Three weeks ago the Ricci Everyday proprieter, Chizu Nakamoto, was featured in the Business section of The Japan Times in a story titled, “Startup’s colorful Ugandan bags take off in Japan, lifting the women who make them”. In Japan the popular Akello bag goes for about US$93 – and the entire range is doing extremely well.

I haven’t yet stopped Chizu or her mother, Ritsue, to thank them for the great work they are doing for this country. Even when I do, my word of appreciation won’t be as valuable as a medal from a national authority or some big incentive from the Uganda Export Promotion Board, Uganda Investment Authority or one of our Ministries of Trade, Investment and so on and so forth.

I was full of wist over this many days later when an email came to me promoting a Mother’s Day online purchase.

The day I signed up for updates from ‘Rose & Fitzgerald (Est. 2013)’ has long faded out of my memory, so when I saw their offer I had to stop and think.

“Win the Ultimate Mother’s Day Ethical Gift Pack – valued at more than US$1,000!” read the banner.

I love my mother more than US$1,000 but I don’t normally have that amount of money on hand to prove the point, so who were these Rose & Fitzgerald who believed this kind of email warranted an exclamation mark?

Besides, I wondered, what kind of “Ethical Gift Pack” was this and how did it link to my beloved mother?

I read the email further, past the pretty images, and one word stood out: “Mugave”. One of the gifts was described as a “Mugave Geometric Bottle Stopper from Rose & Fitzgerald”.

This isn’t the one, but I found that they have made and sold many other such pieces in the years they have been in business:

Rose-Fitz-Design-02
Photo from: http://www.coolhunting.com/design/uganda-rose-fitzgerald-design

Those two are not Ugandan names but it was difficult to imagine that Mugave was a word in common use outside of Uganda.

So I headed to their base site and found that their main outfit is called ‘Thirty One Bits’ (www.31bits.com), offering many nice-looking items that I couldn’t recognise from my many years in Uganda.

So I went to read their story under ‘About Us’.

These three white women, from the photograph, included one Kallie Dovel who came to Uganda for a bit as a university student and went back with stories that blew her friends away.

“She met women who grew up in a war and had nothing. They were single moms with no education and no job, and they were our age. OUR AGE. Our lives couldn’t look more different,” they write.

And then, they continue writing with a perspective totally lacking among US – the Ugandans who live right here with and amongst our fellow Ugandans:

“The women may not have had an education, but their skills and resourcefulness were astounding. They were making incredible jewelry out of old posters. Kallie brought a box of jewelry back, and we fell in love instantly!”

These were Caucasian women from America who met Acholi women in Gulu and created an enterprise.

They sold out within a short time and voila! There a business was born selling small pieces of jewelry and decor at pops of anywhere from US$15 upwards of US$80.

The girls came to Uganda and spent time with six ladies developing products and living together in their homes as they built up Thirty One Bits. Today, they are in “hundreds of stores across the United States” and have endorsements from names such as Sophia Bush, Candace Cameron Bure, Jessica Alba, and magazines like Forbes, Harper’s Bazaar and Elle.

PLUS, they built an entrepreneurship training element into their business so that the ladies creating these jewelry and art pieces don’t rely on just being suppliers, but develop their own businesses.

The girls of Thirty One Bits have graduated 100 artisans over five years, says their website, who have started additional businesses doing poultry, tailoring, agriculture and “One woman even opened her very own restaurant, called none other than ’31 Bits’!”

Not only that – using this experience they found themselves doing the same in Indonesia (which is why I couldn’t recognise many of the items on their online store).

That Indonesia bit is what worries me now. If we don’t have more and more Chizu Nakamoto’s and Kallie Dovel’s coming in from Japan and the United States to discover highly creative and hard working women in Uganda like Rose Nakitto and those unnamed jewelry designers in Northern Uganda, are we ever going to have more superb, high quality products than the Indonesians filling up shelves in foreign countries?

Besides that, how many of us in our twenties (that’s how old Chizu and Kallie were when they started) and thirties and forties are out there creating businesses like this or, at the very least, supporting them by buying their products?

Sadly, not enough to change an entire economy just yet; even more sadly, so few that the Nakamoto’s and Dovel’s will deservedly continue standing out. Thankfully, they do so while putting quality Ugandan products on international shelves to great acclaim, and for that they will be greatly applauded.

i’m so UGANDA! #ondaba? that means…do you see me?!


Ondaba swaminarayan
Photo of Ondaba champions taken from ondaba.wordpress.com

ON a sojourn in Nairobi and South Africa a short while ago I took along with me a newly-acquired hoodie branded ‘I’m So Uganda! #ondaba?’

Normally, I take my travels decked out in a series of busy t-shirts branded “MunyaUganda” underneath the Uganda flag and accompanied by a tag-line such as “Mpaka kuffa”, “So Life is Tye Maber Loyo” and “kandi I’m Gifted by Nature”. Some of the t-shirts also carry tag-lines taken from our National Anthem such as, “Peace and Friendship” and “Together we’ll always stand”.

The #ondaba brand, though, is clean and stands out distinct as I discovered all through my time away and in that hoodie – starting with a young lady in a Duty Free shop at Entebbe who said, “Wow!” as I walked past and smiled back, thinking it was all about me and not the #ondaba hoodie.

One particular day on that trip I walked to the Nairobi Hospital to visit an ailing friend and then walked all the way to Kenyatta Market to experience the ordinary man’s juicy nyama choma, before circling back to my hotel through the Uhuru Park.

Part of the motivation for my trek was to test the street crime system and prove that this was no longer Nairobbery as we used to know it.

It wasn’t, but I was still trepidatious for a long distance because of the number of looks that came my way until I realised they were all aimed at the hoodie – the other part of the motivation for my trek. It wasn’t the stitching or the mix of the deep blue colour with red lining and yellow lines – it was that declaration: ‘I’m So Uganda! #ondaba?’

I eventually got back to my hotel justifiably thirsty and headed for the swimming pool bar to rehydrate. There, a dapper fellow in expensive sunglasses who was facing me as I walked in turned away from his companion to declare: “Wow!” followed by, “Eh! Eh! Eh! I like that!”

I thought I had mis-heard and found that the only seat I could take was at the table next to theirs but before I could take it he waved and started up a conversation – around the hoodie.

What did the words mean? What triggered it? How could he get one? His companion, a polite and equally well-spoken young lady, readily agreed with him.

They were not Ugandan but were *this* close to changing citizenship over ‘#ondaba’. We progressed the discussion as I texted one of the architects of the campaign to hand this guy over to her, as we had arrived at a point where the Kenya version was on the table and he was ready to draft partnership documents.

Later, as I left for South Africa, the ‘#ondaba’ hoodie caused tears to well up in the eyes of an attendant at the airport lounge. As I was responding to the young man’s demand that I explain the entire campaign to him, a guest at the lounge came over for service at his station and interrupted us.

Halfway through serving her, he did the impossible and self-distracted back to me to discuss ‘#ondaba’ further – till I sent him back to keep his job. He was taken by the campaign because he had done something similar back when Kenya erupted into post-election violence.

On his own, earning a humble salary as a blue-collar worker, he designed, printed and distributed t-shirts free of charge to his fellow Kenyans to build or restore their patriotism. He wanted to join the ‘#ondaba’ campaign.

“This is so patriotic, man! I love it! You know, we Africans need to build more patriotism,” he told me in his impassioned speech.

“When that problem happened here and people were dying (the post-election violence in Kenya in 2007) I felt so bad. My people were dying but my people were the ones killing them! I decided to make t-shirts with a message telling all Kenyans that we are one. Tribe doesn’t matter more than who we are as Kenyans. And even as Africans,” he said, this young man with a humble job but very noble aspirations.

I left him after exchanging contact details and a few hours later I was in South Africa where the keen interest in the message on the hoodie was consistent.

There, in South Africa, at least three people stopped me for more about ‘#Ondaba’ on that first night – and I got to my hotel late that evening.

The story behind the campaign should be a challenge for all of us in our respective countries. The group that made ‘#ondaba’ got together under the comments section of Amos Wekesa’s Facebook posts rallying Ugandans to promote tourism on their own if they thought the government wasn’t doing enough.

Herbert Opio, Denis Mubende, Patrick Ngabirano, Prossy Munabuddu, Belinda Namutebi and a few others discussed ideas and created a powerpoint presentation that they delivered to the Minister of Tourism at the time, with a plan to go all the way to the President.

They realised very quickly they would hit a dead end after lots of talk.

So they brought it to the people instead and agreed on #Ondaba as a social media hashtag, for Ugandans to use whenever and wherever they pleased to show what they were doing having fun and enjoying Uganda.

Then they made t-shirts and hoodies to take it further and…voila! People like Muhereza Kyamutetera and Solomon Oleny joined in and now it’s a whole organisation that is poised to go continent-wide!

The rest is history in the making and you will hear or read or be part of it as it grows. All because ordinary people like you and I and the young man making coffee in the airline lounge, took action to promote their countries.

That’s PATRIOTISM.

We can all play a part – we don’t need lots of money; we need lots of heart for country.

Uganda’s textile industry: going round seeing tri-stars until the phoenix rose via fine spinners


Shorts Label.jpg
Comments about shorts here prohibited

WHILE doing some laundry the other day I noticed that I own a pair of shorts that had been made in Sri Lanka. Then I remembered that the person behind Uganda’s ‘big-ticket’ AGOA venture, Tri-Star Apparels, is also from Sri Lanka.

That sent me right back on my current AGOA agony, and I started wondering about all those girls who were so publicly employed by Tri-Star Apparels almost twenty years ago.

The story made big news back then, and we saw photographs of hundreds (were they thousands?) of girls going through a recruitment and then training process, after which they were given those coveted jobs.

At some point I even joined delegations paying official visits to the factory in Bugolobi, at a location made famous in the 1980s for hosting our biggest export then – coffee – processed and warehoused there by the mighty Coffee Marketing Board. Twenty years after that, the location was hosting another big export – clothing made by the girls of Tri-Star Apparels.

The newspapers back then wrote stuff like: “Tri-Star Apparels was founded by Deshabandu Kumar Dewapura in 1979 with just 10 machines and 15 employees. Tri-Star is now a global employer boasting dozens of factories in Sri Lanka, Kenya, Uganda, and Botswana that employ 15,000 workers producing 15 million pieces of garment. Its corporate clients include Ralph Lauren (2002 net revenue $2.3 billion), Gap (2002 net revenue, $7.0 billion), Guess (2002 net revenue $0.8 billion) and Limited Brands which owns Victoria’s Secret line of clothing (2002 revenue, $8.4 billion). It recently signed a contract to supply two million pieces of baby and children wear every month to UK-based Grasshopper Holder, one of the largest EU garment suppliers.”

For real, those words appear here.

The news stories also reported that Vellulapai Kananathan was the man behind this venture in Uganda, having partnered with the Sri Lanka-based Tri-Star Apparels.

Kananathan is today, I believe, Sri Lanka’s Honorary Consul to Uganda. The rest of the internet reports that the Tri-Star Apparels founder, Kumar Dewapura, passed away in September 2014.

Curiosity further piqued and my mind still on the statistic I saw a couple of weeks ago that said during the whole of 2016 Uganda only exported textiles worth US$9million to the United States under AGOA arrangements, I dug a bit more.

The internet doesn’t easily reveal information about Tri-Star Apparels. bloomberg.com, normally a trustworthy reporter of financial and business news, has a record of ‘Apparels Tri-Star (Uganda) Ltd.’ whose Key Executive is Mr. Vellupi Kanathan and that “operates as a subsidiary of LAP Green Network.”

The website has no record of the Sri Lankan Tri-Star Apparels, but that didn’t worry me – I simply looked elsewhere and found it…no. Not the Sri Lankan one – apparently there is a Tri-Star Apparels in India that has a Facebook page or wall to which the persons involved post photographs of clothing they sell.

This Tri-Star Apparels claimed to be based in Bangalore, India, and listed a website that is non-functional. Since I couldn’t be bothered to dial the number provided, I went to the rest of the internet only to find them listed elsewhere (same India phone number) with a Director called Mr. Naidu, and a rickety statement in English accompanying a small photo of t-shirts that all put together seemed to spell the word “con”.

I closed those sites and found the “Sri Lanka Directory of Exporters” under the header of the Sri Lanka Export Board, which listed Tri-Star Apparels Pvt. Ltd. with nothing under “Product /Services Range” but contact details that included the website’ www.tristar.org’.

The same website is listed in a few other places, with the company contact being Ms. Samantha Gunawardena, accompanied by a legend about the work they do.

The listed website is non-functional.

Then lankainformation.lk, the “Gateway to Sri Lanka”, presented a list of players in the Textile and Garments industry that didn’t mention Tri-Star.

It was frustrating.

Until I hit pay dirt. An organisation called Industrial Restructuring Consultancy Pvt. Ltd. had an online entry from February 2016 detailing how they helped ‘Tri Star Garment Industry’ conduct a restructuring in which they gave up a 20% shareholding and downsides from 8,000 to 4,000 staff.

At this point I felt I should focus more on my Ugandan Tri-Star instead and was happy to discover that there was a recent update made along the way.

About three years ago, NTV (in Uganda, I have reason to believe), published a story titled, “Kenyan textile entrepreneur takes over Tristar Apparel”, that read quite determinedly: “Fine Spinners, a Kenyan textile company, will be injecting over Ushs108billion over the next three years in a value development of Uganda’s cotton sector.”

That was three years ago so by counting very slowly one would be correct in expecting that we have received Ushs108billion in this country from Fine Spinners, a Kenyan textile company.

Continued the story, “Fine Spinners has taken over the operations of Tristar Apparel in Uganda. Tristar Apparel was closed down after years of losses despite heavy government subsidies and assured market through the Africa Growth and Opportunities Act initiative.”

Pause for thought there and think to yourself why the Kenyan company was so ready to inject Ushs108billion into a business venture that had failed in spite of subsidies and AGOA.

I couldn’t work it out immediately myself. Especially taking the usual rudimentary action of discovery in 2018 – Googling ‘Fine Spinners Kenya’.

The internet seemed to know more about Fine Spinners Uganda than Kenya, and I learnt about Jaswinder Bedi, described as a “textile technologist” and the man behind Fine Spinners. His personal story aside, I was astounded to read, in The Independent magazine:

“The government of Uganda has leased Phenix Logistics Uganda Ltd, a garment manufacturer based in Kampala, to a Kenyan-based garment manufacturer – Fine Spinners. The deal…at un-disclosed amount of money and a 15-year period is interesting ….Phenix Logistics has been recording losses, with the government injecting in billions of shillings to keep it afloat.”

So… what does Fine Spinners know that nobody else in Uganda appears to know and why don’t we know it after all these years?

I intend to find out for myself one day, rather than read stuff about them off the internet; their website says they are located on Spring Road in Bugolobi, and their phone number is listed there as +256 414 342 716, so I will be dialing it soon.

Their story, on that website, goes: “Our cotton is predominantly grown in the West, where, assisted by leading development partners, we mentor our smallholder farmers in sustainable cotton agriculture.

At harvest, the CMiA (Cotton Made in Africa – see http://www.cottonmadeinafrica.org/)-branded lint bales are transported to the Fine Spinners facilities in Kampala to be blended and spun into yarn. Our knitting and dying processes meet exacting international standards, as do our fabrics, which are subjected to rigorous retailer-specified testing regimes.”

Fine Spinners sources their cotton, says the website, from Kasese’s Western Uganda Cotton Company (WUCC) and NOT from the usual parts we have been hearing about since the days adults like myself were in primary school. This story here is further evidence of those expectations.

Fine Spinners even brought a group of European textile manufacturers to visit the place last year in April and they exclaimed that they were thoroughly impressed by Uganda’s cotton.

Said one of the textile importers: “I import 500,000 T-shirts per year, but now I want to grow it to one million pieces annually next year 2018. When you ask me why, I will tell you it is because Uganda has good cotton with production facilities.”

That was Joern Otto, the vice president for sourcing at Germany’s Bonprix Company – which actually exists, going by the internet. Either way, we should ensure that he actually doubles his purchases as planned.

It appears to be a true story, this one of Fine Spinners and Bonprix and Uganda’s cotton being so great. The Economist wrote a feature about this here: https://www.economist.com/news/middle-east-and-africa/21721636-will-manufacturing-africa-ever-take-journey-african-cotton-boll.

Ugandan clothes ARE being sold in Germany and the United States IN SPITE of the lobby group SMART (Secondary Materials And Recycled Textiles Association) and their rather silly assertions about how hapless Uganda’s manufacturing future is, and how inert we sometimes are.

In an April 2016 interview, Jas Bedi stated that Fine Spinners was exporting about 50,000 t-shirts a month and was targeting 500,000 going up to 1million t-shirts a month by the end of that year.

He has done so well, going by the media reports, that just one client – Bonprix – is targeting 1million t-shirts from Uganda every month this year.

One of my favourite statements attributed to him goes: “Ugandan cotton itself is so much more superior, so it just gives you a competitive advantage right before you start. It’s handpicked, not machine picked, and because of that it’s a superior cotton. When you start with better cotton, you get a better product.”

What time and resources we wasted on those other guys long gone!
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